Is American atheism heading for a schism? So what else is new?

Is American atheism heading for a schism?” Peter McGrath asks in today’s Guardian. He’s writing specifically about the new Atheism+ movement that’s started in recent weeks. And, hilariously (and soooo appropriately) he embeds the above clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. McGrath writes:

The founders of Atheism+ say clearly that “divisiveness” is not their aim, but looking through the blogs and voluminous comments in the two weeks since A+ was mooted, trenches have been dug, beliefs stated, positions staked out and abuse thrown. A dissenting tweeter is “full of shit”, while, according to one supporter, daring to disagree with Atheism+’s definition of progressive issues and not picking their side makes you an “asshole and a douchebag”.

It took 700 years from Constantine renaming Byzantium in his own honour to papal legates circulating letters of anathema that split the Roman and Orthodox churches. Atheism, in its public, online life, has started exchanging internet anathemas – perhaps we should call them inathemas – in little more than a decade.

So is American atheism heading for a schism? That’s like asking, “Are my cats going to fight today? Or will this be the first day of their lives together that they leave each other alone and get along?”

No, the cats will not get along. They will mostly get along, but at some point today my wife and I will hear a yowling from the other room, and one of us will enter that room to find no cats and no evidence of cats other than scattered tufts of fur.

In this way, cat fights are better than atheist fights. After only a few minutes of flat-eared posturing, the fight itself is over in seconds and both parties can then go off to sulk quietly. They don’t go online to argue about it for months on end.

Atheists (at least Internet atheists) do nothing quietly, but in many ways we’re like my cats: independent-minded, disdainful of authority, impatient, and not above positioning ourselves so we have at least a fair chance of planting our teeth in our housemate’s hindquarters.

Atheism is likely to remain loud, raucous, fractured, and prone to schoolyard battles for as long as there’s a need for an atheist movement.

In other words, I don’t think atheism is ever going to be a quiet, purely rational, unified movement. The lack of authority, the emphasis on thinking for yourself, plus the usual self-righteousness and self-justification common to human nature, plus the worldwide megaphone of the Internet and social media… equals a future in which atheism is likely to remain loud, raucous, fractured, and prone to schoolyard battles for as long as there’s a need for an atheist movement.

And perhaps more so in America, where atheism stands in such stark contrast to the Christian mainstream, and where historically our culture has a streak of missionary zeal (Manifest Destiny! Prohibition! American Exceptionalism!) which I think rubs off even on secular thinkers.

Personally I find this quarrelsome aspect of atheism distasteful. I grew up Evangelical Christian and have witnessed numerous church splits and lesser feuds and rivalries. I know that in churches with congregational governments (i.e., where the congregation hires its own pastors and elects its own leaders), rates of pastoral turnover and burnout are high, as pastors are chewed up and spit out by their congregants’ petty squabbles, infighting, and turf wars.I had hoped that atheists would be better than that.

But I think we have reason to believe that things aren’t as bad as they appear. Today’s atheism has become very much a web-based movement, and let’s face it, the web amplifies conflict. If you wanted to design a technology specifically to help fights get started more easily, and to prolong those already underway, you could hardly do better than produce a combination of blogs, videos, and lots and lots of reader comments.

At the same time, the most popular bloggers tend to be those that write punchy, opinionated, and often controversial pieces. Readers are drawn to that kind of writing, and the most opinionated ones respond in kind. And it’s all online, so people don’t use the restraint they’d probably show if they were talking face to face. Add a few genuine trolls to stir things up further, and pretty soon everyone’s talking bitterly past each other.

And amplifying it even further, meta commentary and news coverage such as what’s in today’s Guardian tends to focus on the fighting, rather than all the other things being said in the blogosphere.

In other words, all this conflict, and news of conflict, and conflict about how to interpret the conflict doesn’t necessarily reflect where most atheists are coming from or what they spend most of their time thinking about. Remember that this whole social media world is still pretty new. We don’t have a lot of perspective on its tendencies and its relative strengths and weaknesses. I think we’ll feel more at ease as we learn how the technology itself shapes the conversation and selectively amplifies certain aspects of it.

For what’s it’s worth, I think atheism+ is right to want to emphasize “social issues like sexism, racism, GLBT issues, politics, poverty, and crime.” And yes, secular humanism was already talking about these things first. But if Atheism+ can bring in people that weren’t responding to humanism, great. It’s good strategy to have multiple approaches and a variety of styles–and this is also inevitable, considering our herd-of-cats independence.

But we should also recognize that, human nature being what is, there’s going to be a good deal of fighting between the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea (see video above). Religious or not, we’re still pretentious apes, and this is how we tend to behave. Always have. The best we can hope for is that, bit by bit, we’ll learn to do better.

2 thoughts on “Is American atheism heading for a schism? So what else is new?

  1. I don’t mind A+ so much if it helps people get their work done, although right now it feels a bit to me like “I’m taking all my marbles and going home”. My hope is that all the various groups (denominations?) keep the lines of communication open so we can work together when we have common cause.

    • I agree. And it kind of depends on which A+ supporter we’re talking about. Some are placing more emphasis on the ‘plus’ of rallying people around positive values; others seem more interested in drawing lines in the sand.

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